Cry of liberty

Foundation will honor refuseniks whose 1970 attempted hijacking drew world attention to the Soviet Union’s oppression of Jews

Greg Margolin (left) and Ary Rotman are cofounders of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, which will honor five refuseniks at an Oct. 18 gala. Greg Margolin (left) and Ary Rotman are cofounders of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, which will honor five refuseniks at an Oct. 18 gala. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Hinda Mandell
Globe Correspondent / October 8, 2009

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Four decades ago, a group of Russians - nine Jews and two Christians - planned their great escape from what was then the Soviet Union, a country that did not allow its citizens the freedom to leave without state permission.

Known as refuseniks because they had been denied their requests to emigrate, the dissidents bought all the seats on a small charter flight from Leningrad’s airport.

Their plan was to overpower the pilot and fly the aircraft to Sweden, where they would hold a news conference detailing the plight of Soviet Jews under the oppressive regime. Their ultimate destination: Israel.

But they never even boarded the plane.

Instead, they were arrested at the airport, and their trial and imprisonment on treason charges prompted international outrage against the communist country and put the struggles of Soviet Jewry on the map.

“I can’t even imagine what this movement would look like without this event,’’ said Laura Bialis, the Tel Aviv-based producer and director of “Refusenik,’’ a 2007 documentary. “These people were superstars.’’

On Oct. 18, five of them will be in Greater Boston for the Russian Jewish Community Foundation’s fifth annual charity ball, where they receive the organization’s Soviet Jewry Freedom Award.

“It was a crazy, bold idea,’’ Brookline resident Ary Rotman, cofounder and president of the foundation, said of the 1970 hijacking attempt, which occurred when he was a young man living in the Soviet Union.

“When I heard I was stunned by the boldness of the people who tried to do that,’’ Rotman said.

Three of the guests of honor will be traveling from their homes in Israel, while the other two live in the United States. The other six members, whose youngest is age 70, said they would not be able to attend the gala.

Organizers say it will mark the first reunion on US soil of the samoletchiks, or “airplane guys,’’ as they became known during their ordeal, who sparked an international movement that included rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and even a strike by Italian longshoremen in support of Soviet Jewry.

News of the would-be hijacking also told the world that Soviet Jews were willing to take a stand against their government, said historian Gal Beckerman of New York.

“When they realized they couldn’t have a positive Jewish identity in the Soviet Union, they wanted to go to Israel,’’ Beckerman said.

After their arrest at the Leningrad airport in the spring of 1970, the dissidents were charged with treason for attempting to flee the Soviet Union. Two of the plotters were sentenced to death by firing squad, though their sentences were eventually commuted. The nine others were sentenced to the gulags, the Soviet Union’s notorious forced-labor camps.

By 1979, eight of the dissidents had been released from the prison camps. Jerry Kopel, a Colorado state representative at the time, decided to help free the remaining samoletchiks. With the backing of then-state Senator Tilman Bishop, Kopel established the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three. Thanks in part to Kopel’s and Bishop’s letter-writing campaign, all of the dissidents were released from Soviet prisons by 1985. For their efforts, the two retired legislators will also be honored at the foundation’s gala, which is being held at Lombardo’s in Randolph.

“Pressure is the key,’’ said Kopel, 81. “We were a part of it.’’

Rotman said news of the thwarted hijacking was an eye-opener for him.

“I knew I had to find a way to get out,’’ said Rotman, 60, who was born in Moscow and immigrated to the United States in 1975 after he was arrested for civil disobedience for trying to stage a demonstration at the Kremlin. “It was a breakthrough event. I think they made a hole in the Iron Curtain and that hole became wider.’’

Religious practice was prohibited in the Soviet Union. However, the airplane plotters were part of a larger group of Jewish activists who secretly gathered to study Hebrew and sing Jewish songs, according to Beckerman.

The organizers of the charity event said they wanted to think big for this year’s Soviet Jewry Freedom Award recipients. They saw “extreme sacrifice’’ in the airplane plotters, said Greg Margolin, 51, of Brighton. “Our young generations have to learn about this.’’

Margolin, cofounder of the local foundation, said that about 50,000 Russian-speaking Jews live in Massachusetts, with the majority of them in Brighton, Brookline, and Newton.

In a post 9/11 world, it may appear unseemly to hold up attempted hijackers as the pillars of a freedom movement. But Beckerman maintains that the details of the plot distinguish it from terrorist activity.

“At least in the minds of the people involved, they were in a prison and this was their way of breaking out of a prison,’’ said Beckerman. “They really didn’t want it to be sullied by anything violent. They were interested in making a statement through escaping - not through violence.’’

Beckerman said their plan was to remove the pilot from the aircraft during a layover near the Soviet Union’s border with Finland, and fly the plane to Sweden; they planned to return the plane to Soviet officials once they had reached freedom.

Boris Penson, 63, of Netanya, Israel, is one of the refuseniks who will be honored at the Oct. 18 gala. Penson, an artist trained at the Arts Academy of Riga, Latvia, said the nine years he spent incarcerated after the attempted hijacking affected his personality. Penson released a series of drawings detailing the prison camp experience after he was set free.

“I do have regrets,’’ he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe that was translated from Russian by Margolin. “I regret we did not escape at the time of the operation.’’

Back then, he added, the hijacking represented his only chance to escape from the Soviet Union.

Wolf Zalmanson, 69, a retired engineer from Herzliya, Israel, who will also be honored, recalled his intended role in the planned operation. Zalmanson, another Latvia native, was supposed to subdue the pilot as he opened the aircraft’s door to allow the passengers to disembark at the layover.

“As a Jew and a Zionist, I looked at the participation in this operation as my duty,’’ Zalmanson, who was incarcerated by the Soviets for nine years, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

“The operation was a demonstration to the West that Soviet Jewry wanted to come to Israel, and that the Jews of Soviet Union were ready to struggle to get this goal,’’ Zalmanson wrote.

Maria Lerner, 73, of Allston, is a cousin of an airplane plotter, Anatoly Altman, 68, who also will be honored.

“When he was arrested we didn’t know because his mother - my husband’s aunt - didn’t want to make trouble for our family. Because in the former USSR it’s very bad for the family and she wanted to keep our family safe,’’ said Lerner, a retired civil engineer who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1990.

When Altman’s mother died, Lerner took on the responsibilities of sending care packages to Altman while he was imprisoned near Siberia, she said. The packages - prisoners were permitted to receive two per year, not weighing more than 2 pounds - were filled with high-calorie biscuits and ink for letter writing.

When Lerner and her husband, Joseph, saw Altman in Moscow after his release in 1979, she said, he looked 60 years old. He was just 38 at the time.

“He was very strong before he was arrested. Like an athlete,’’ said Lerner. “When we met him in Moscow he was like an old man.’’

Lerner said she suspects that an incident occurring around the time of Altman’s birth represented the impetus behind his attempt to hijack a plane. In 1942, about 80 members of Altman’s family were killed by Nazis in a massacre of 3,000 Jews in Brailov, Ukraine.

For Ukrainians living under Soviet rule, she said, “you can’t speak about the Second World War. Anatoly knew this. He grew up on this memory. This pushed him to make something good for Jews,’’ said Lerner. “I think it was his dream to live in Israel and to make Jewish people free.’’

At the Oct. 18 event, Rotman said, he will make clear that those in the crowd owe a lot to the “airplane guys.’’

“I will say to the audience that because of these people most of us are here today,’’ said Rotman. “They made the unbelievable believable.’’

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